Saturday, October 31, 2015

Binary Knit-Purl

Some fiber artists are beginning to draw parallels between knitting patterns and typical coding expressions. The structure of a knitting pattern can look quite similar to regular expressions in computer programming. In this featured blog post, Holly Korbey unravels the value of hands-on learning and creative craft that knitting can bring to the classroom. 


“Thinking is like cosmic knitting,” Waldorf school founder Rudolph Steiner wrote nearly one hundred years ago. Steiner  developed a comprehensive handwork curriculum for Waldorf students based on this idea, filled with knitting, sewing and woodworking, believing that “a person who is unskillful in his fingers will also be unskillful in his intellect, having less mobile ideas and thoughts.”Today’s Waldorf students still knit socks and whittle kitchen spoons and many Waldorf schools shun the use of technology. Those two things — handwork and technology — might seem at first glance to be at odds. But there’s a case to be made that handwork and computing  — and the kind of process that links the two — are more closely related than one might think.

When electrical engineering professor Dr. Karen Shoop of Queen Mary University in London took her first knitting workshop, she noticed immediately that knitting is very similar to writing computer code. “I noticed that knitting instructions are largely binary (like computers) – in other words, knit or purl,” she said. “More interesting were the knitting instructions, which read just like regular expressions [of code], used for string matching and manipulation when coding.” Shoop also recognizes that the earliest stages of computing were inspired by handwork: “Of course, computers ultimately started off partially inspired by weaving and the Jacquard loom, or earlier Bouchon’s loom. Arguably some of the earliest programmers were the people making the card/paper punch hole patterns for weaving patterns.”

Shoop explains that regular expressions are simple but powerful for both searching and simplifying code, and are used in both knitting and codingto read patterns. In the essay “Knitters and Coders: Separated at Birth?”she writes, “In knitting notation (assuming an even number of stitches) it looks like:

Row 1: *k1, p1; rep from * Rows 2: *p1, k1; rep from *, orRow 1: (K1, P1) rep to end Row 2: (P1, K1) rep to end.Repeat these 2 rows for length desired.

“Computers do not understand the words we used in our explanation above: words like ‘row,’ ‘repeat,’ ‘rep,’ ‘to,’ ‘from,’ ‘end,’ ‘length’ and ‘desired,’ for example.” But what if the knitting pattern were written in code? Using coding’s regular expressions, the knitting notation above turns into something like:


“Students often feel anything to do with computing (especially coding) is in a separate bubble,” she said. “And I wanted to show that we ‘code’ in our outside world.” Shoop even had a student — an enthusiastic knitter — who, as a senior class project, developed a digital tool that could recognize and generate new knitting patterns.  “We’re interested in how creativity can inform technology and help create and inform new tools and technologies to support the creative process,” she said.

Working with the hands can help both boys and girls develop thinking skills as well as fine motor skills, both of which are sorely needed in schools, says Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently. “For males [in general], handwork helps with fine motor skills, and for females [in general], it helps with diagrammatic thinking, found in the highest levels of geometry and physics,” he said. “School is fine motor-oriented, and we need more boys to get fine motor skills early.” Gurian would also be interested to see if handwork like knitting or woodworking would be a way to interest more girls in STEM fields, hoping that something like Shoop’s knitting project might serve as a guide for longitudinal studies finding a connection between handwork, engineering, and computer coding.Seeing how the hand is connected to learning goes beyond skills matching or STEM, but to the roots of human biology, says Stanford neurologist Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture. In a keynote address given to the department of Humanities and Human Sciences at Point Park College, “Hand-made Minds in the ‘Digital’ Age,” Wilson implored teachers to incorporate more handwork into school work.

“It seems abundantly clear to me that, because of the process of co-evolution, the hand enjoys a privileged status in the learning process,” he said. “Being not only a catalyst but an experiential focal point for the organization of the young child’s perceptual, motor, cognitive, and creative world. It seems equally clear that as the child comes to the end of the pre-adolescent stage of development, the hand readily becomes a connecting link between self and community and a powerful enabler of the growing child’s determination to acquire adult skill, responsibility, and recognition.”

Shoop isn’t sure that k-12 students can learn anything specific from knitting (“Being a devil’s advocate,” she remarked, “does it have to teach anything? Knitting as making activity could be sufficient.”),  and warns that teaching large classes of students to knit does have drawbacks — including the time to check everyone’s work. Yet she admires how the tangible, sensory experience of knitting and the seemingly intangible world of computer coding are so closely linked. “I loved the fact that there is a perception (usually wrong) that there’s a world of computers (soulless, technical, ‘geeky’) and a completely different domain such as knitting (traditional, ‘female’, craft) – yet there is a clear overlap.”

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Not a Knot: Our friend, the Garter Stitch

As we say hello to scarf season, it's a great moment to go inside, take out our needles, and unpack the garter stitch.

Many knitters begin their fiber art journeys with the the garter stitch technique. It is arguably easy to make and understand. The repeating series of knit stitches can be used to create scarves, and many knitters talk about the meditative nature of the repetition. However, a closer look reveals a more complex side of the friendly stitch. 

An illustration of the garter stitch pattern. 

 When knitting, the working yarn comes around the needle and through a pre-existing stitch. A resulting loop is created, which the knitter then slips from the left needle to the right needle. The garter stitch provides an approachable conceptualization of what it means for a stitch to be a loop; the stitch is not a knot. 

Stitches are commonly talked about as knots, but as one can see in the picture above, the garter stitch pattern in created from a series of loops. In this sense, one can think of a hat as a spiral of stitches, not as a set of circles. Through my experience with knitting, I have discovered a deeper level of understanding when I slow down to actually look at the behavior of the wool.  

The working yarn come through the previous loop to make a new loop.

Garter stitches are sometimes viewed as elementary, or simplistic, but it is good for knitters to remember that the underlying structure of any stitch is far from simple. I suggest that the next time you find yourself knitting with a repetitive pattern, take a moment to focus your attention on the architecture and movement of the loops. You may be surprised by what you learn.

The garter stitch pattern is used to make a scarf out of chunky wools. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cosplayers of the World, Rejoice! Joann's Is Getting Cosplay Fabrics!

This week, there was collective cheering in the cosplay community when JoAnn Fabrics announced that it was going to start carrying Cosplay Fabrics. Arising out of a collaboration between the Cosplay Fabrics company and well-known cosplayer Yaya Han, the fabric line will go on sale in Spring 2016. It will include 4-way stretch Spandex, PU leather, brocades, coutil, and even fabric that looks like armor!

The designers' motivation to make these fabrics more available to cosplayers came out of their own struggles to find appropriate fabrics for their costumes. Many times specialty fabrics are not available except in big cities, or online where a buyer can't feel the fabric to make sure it's the proper color, texture, or quality. Bringing these fabrics to Joann's will make many a cosplayer's life much easier.

Swatches of the available colors of Cosplay Fabrics' 4-way stretch Spandex. Courtesy of

The way I see it, this development has several implications:
  1. Cosplay is definitely "going mainstream." This move represents a huge fabric retailer's acknowledgement that cosplayers exist and are a sizeable-enough portion of its customer base that it is willing to cater to them directly. I'm so happy that such a fun and educationally rich hobby is getting this popular!
  2. If fabric-finding is easier, then cosplayers will spend more time working on making costumes, which is the most educationally relevant part.
  3. I hope the prices of these fabrics will not be marked up simply because they have the label "cosplay," since that risks marginalizing cosplayers with limited financial resources. On the other hand, monetary calculations are a legitimate mathematical practice that sewers engage in. Maybe an expensive cosplay fabric will encourage cosplayers to look elsewhere in the store for a similar but cheaper alternative, if one exists.
  4. Some of these specialty fabrics are likely to be more difficult to sew than ordinary fabrics like cotton. Cosplayers will have to learn the affordances of these new materials, like how to not stretch Spandex as you're running it through a machine (if you do, it will pucker). So while these might not be the most novice-friendly fabrics, if novices insist on using them, then they're likely to learn a lot more about sewing than if they used "easy" fabrics.
I'm really looking forward to seeing and feeling these fabrics for myself when they arrive at my local JoAnn's!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Elaborate Designs

I want to begin by saying that I am totally enjoying my Re-Crafting Math project. It has given me so many opportunities to meet wonderful people and understand how they use numbers to weave beautiful designs. Today was a special day because I got to meet with the founder of Textillery, Judith Rose.  She began weaving 40 year ago. Currently, she has 12 weavers working for her. Here are some pictures to get you acquainted with her work.

I was mesmerized by the things that she weaves and sells to her customers. I looked around at all the beautiful creations while she finished writing an email. As I moved around, I was awestruck by the textures, designs, and feel of the woven items. I could totally understand why, when she told me that if one of her customers had a fire or something happened to their past items, they had to replace them with new from her because they couldn’t live without them.

Judith shared with me that when she got stuck with numbers her husband created a computer program to make her life easier. Interestingly, her husband, John, told me that she uses a lot of math without even knowing that she is doing so. She said that it is because she loves weaving so whatever she needs to know to overcome the hurdles, she learns it and that clearly shows in her designs.

She said that she found math problems in school out of context. Since I have taught math for eight years, I immediately understood what she meant when she said that she was taught math using problems that didn’t make sense to her. All the weavers I met have communicated that their school math programs lacked encouragement and real life problems that could connect them with their passions.  

When I look at their beautiful craft, I know that they use high concepts of math along with what they learned in school mathematics. The best part is that they don’t even realize that they are using it, it comes naturally to them. I could see that they are naturally curious about math if it is related to what they like to do or if it is a part of the world around them. When Judith explained the basics of weaving to me, I figured out that the fabric design line is elongated when the slope of the weaver’s angle is greater than one and if it is less than one the fabric design line is shortened and the weaver would use less yarn.

I am looking forward to having more such awesome experiences and share with you guys in my next blog post!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sewing and Spatial Rotation

Hey there! Remember me? This is Sophia, the embedded sewer/ cosplayer. It's good to be back in the blogosphere! Several months have passed since I last wrote an update here, but I've been busy with Re-Crafting that whole time! Over the next few weeks, I'll report on what I've been up to.

I haven't shared here yet the most complex costume I've made to date, the one of which I'm still most proud. I made it at the end of the spring semester, partly as a final project for an art class, but mostly just because I really wanted to be able to dress up as Itachi, my favorite character from the anime and manga series Naruto. I mean, just look at this menacing awesomeness!

Last weekend at the Fablearn conference in Stanford, I presented on my experiences so far with the Re-Crafting Math project. Perhaps the most educationally compelling aspect of my cosplay-making exploits is the way I've found that sewing forces you to think hard about visualizing rotation and 2D-to-3D transformation. Fabric starts out two-dimensional and flat, and you need to envision what it will look like when worn by a three-dimensional person in order to understand what shapes to cut out and how to put them together. If you're using a pattern, those are usually drawn on flat pieces of paper, and also require mental transfer from 2D to 3D. On top of that, sewing usually requires you to sew inside-out, so your stitches are on the wrong side of the fabric and won't be visible from the right side. Making sense of that requires even more spatial visualization so you can keep track of what's inside-out and how it will look when you turn it right-side out.

Since I've never been good at spatial visualization, this became particularly confusing for me when sewing the sleeves onto Itachi's cloak. I had already sewn the sleeves into tubes and the body of the cloak, so none of these pieces was flat anymore. It was very difficult to then figure out how to put them together so the right sides of both pieces were facing each other and so the stitches at the shoulders wouldn't show. I ended up pinning one sleeve on inside-out from the way it was supposed to be, and not until I turned it right-side out and actually tried it on (that is, not until I physically embodied the spatial rotation) did I realize that it was backwards.

So, sewing clearly gives people practice with these skills. This is important because sewing is stereotypically considered a woman's craft in our culture, and women are also assumed, in general, to not be as good at spatial rotation skills as men are. This spatial stereotype remains despite the fact that a 2008 study suggested that gender differences in spatial rotation test scores were entirely based on stereotype threat.

What if giving girls more practice with sewing helped to improve their spatial skills and to close this gap? (I bet boys would benefit from learning to sew too!) What if spatial rotation tests were based on, for instance, sewing patterns rather than on the pictures of blocks that they normally entail? Since some engineering programs require high scores on spatial rotation tests in order to admit you, finding ways to close the spatial gap has important implications for gender equity in STEM. We hope to start confronting these issues head-on in our Re-Crafting work!